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Next Up: Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea is a postcolonial novel written by Jean Rhys as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

The story follows Antoinnette Cosway (Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre) from her younger years in the Caribbean, to marrying Mr. Rochester, to her relocation to an attic in England. If you’ve read Jane Eyre, you know her as the “madwoman in the attic,” but Wide Sargasso Sea shows her as a healthy young woman who is living in an oppressive and patriarchal society.

This novel appears to be a nice break from the heaviness of Under The Volcano, plus it’s much shorter, so I’m looking forward to it.

Some quick facts about Wide Sargasso Sea and Jean Rhys:

  • Published in 1966, 27 years after Rhys’ previous novel, Good Morning, Midnight.
  • The novel opens right after the 1833 emancipation of slaves in British-owned, Jamaica.
  • In addition to appearing on the Time list, Wide Sargasso Sea was ranked #94 in the Modern Library’s Top 100 novels.
  • The novel won the Booker Prize for 1966 and the W.H. Smith Literary Award in 1967.
  • The book has been adapted for film, opera, and television.
  • Stevie Nicks wrote a song (“Wide Sargasso Sea”) about the book. It appeared in her 2011 album In Your Dreams.
  • Jean Rhys, born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was born in Dominica. She passed away in 1979 at the age of 89.

That’s a lot of info about a novel that’s less than 200 pages.

Any thoughts about Wide Sargasso Sea and how it compares to Jane Eyre?

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29 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love this book! It completely changed how I see ‘Jane Eyre’ – I always see that story from the point of view of Bertha now. She’s made out to be a hideous monster coming between a ‘proper English woman’ and her ‘rightful’ groom, when really Rochester is an abusive bigamist. You’ll enjoy Rhys’ take on it – it’s intoxicating.

    Like

    May 10, 2012
    • Look at the logic of your statement: you are interpreting a novel written a hundred years earlier by the themes presented in a contemporary text. The Wide Sargasso Sea is not Jane Eyre and can only be very loosely association with Jane Eyre: it’s fiction.

      Imagine reading Abraham Lincoln, Zombie Hunter and then using it to interpret Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. Sound daft?

      It does bring up a small conundrum: if I write a piece of fiction about the events depicted or implied in an earlier work, am I stepping outside the fiction and as Walter Benjamin might have conjectured, taking the earlier work as an artifact of civilization. My thoughts are turning quite Marxist now …

      Like

      May 11, 2012
      • I agree it’s daft to use Abraham Lincoln to reinterpret Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln. But I also see a difference. Abraham Lincoln was a historical figure, while Rochester was a fictional character. I think it is possible that a later work can bring about a more complete understanding of a character created long before. A contemporary work may awaken us to some aspects of a previously created character that we may not have been aware of. While it’s true that Rhys was commenting on aspects of Rochester’s character that were not contained in Bronte’s book, she was likely drawing on her knowledge of the relationships between British aristocrats and natives in British colonial possessions which may have led Rochester to treat Bertha the way he did in Jane Eyre. If I ever knew of the motivations leading to Rhys’s treatment of this theme, I’ve forgotten them, but to truly comment, one would need to know why Rhys wrote as she did. sssssssssssssssshe did. of type of actions kkkkklskdjflkasjdf

        Like

        May 11, 2012
  2. There are not many novels that star eels either.

    Like

    May 10, 2012
  3. I tried to read this a few years ago and it didn’t make sense and I couldn’t get into it. Now that I have read Jane Eyre, I think I will revisit this one. I had no idea the two were related. Duh!

    Like

    May 10, 2012
    • I’ve started on it and it’s not that bad. Pretty straightforward so far.

      Like

      May 10, 2012
  4. I studied this book and ‘Jane Eyre’ for my BA and chose to write on them for my long papers. I won’t say much because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed reading and studying them both. I look forward to your review!

    Like

    May 10, 2012
  5. Interesting you’re reading this now. I just read about it in Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. She didn’t explain what it was about but that you should read it (and that she thought Charlotte would have found it fascinating). I look forward to your review and will probably tack it on to my list of things to read.

    Like

    May 10, 2012
    • I wonder if Charlotte would find it fascinating or be annoyed that someone tried to add to her story.

      Like

      May 10, 2012
      • That’s the real question isn’t it. Hill thought that she would be proud of the fact – that it was growing and expanding and not staying finite on the shelf. And maybe that comes from her years of experience, but after researching how she limited Anne’s (and Emily’s to an extent) posthumous literary potential I wonder if you might be right as well.

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        May 10, 2012
  6. I remember discussing this with a friend of mine, and we agreed that the Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea doesn’t really match the Rochester in Jane Eyre…but he’s well-written and perfect for the purposes of the story. I’ll be interested to see what you think.

    Like

    May 10, 2012
    • I’ve never read Jane Eyre! Awful, I know. So I’ll probably miss the similarities and differences.

      Like

      May 10, 2012
  7. I don’t think one can really compare it to Jane Eyre. It’s a great, but tragic story of the seduction and destruction of a happy young women by a more powerful man. Common story in literature. But I really enjoyed it. Like Rachael, I studied both novels in college. Reading Jane Eyre helps, but is certainly not necessary.

    Like

    May 10, 2012
  8. J. #

    I love this book. I read it in a twentieth-century British lit course; the focus for the semester was colonial and post-colonial literature.
    A word of warning though: if you’re looking forward to light reading, this isn’t it. It’s pretty heavy (though it is short).

    Like

    May 10, 2012
  9. I’ve been interested in this book for years because of the association with Jane Eyre and have never read it – I’ll be glad to hear about it!

    Like

    May 10, 2012
  10. Alison #

    Loved WS, which I studied for Open Uni certificate in humanities, and also re-read Jane Eyre. I have since read WSS a few times.

    The novel is written in deceptively simple prose, but much info and description included. It is a tragedy and tells the stories of both Bertha/Antoinette (the former Mrs R), and her mother.

    I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, but it is concerned with inequality, insanity, race and feminist issues. Some fascinating character studies as well.

    I never liked Mr R again after I read this!!!

    Like

    May 10, 2012
  11. It might be short but it’s not a quick read. The style can be quite challenging because sometimes its unclear whose narrative we are hearing. It took me a few attempts to get through it.

    Karen
    http://allthingsbooker.wordpress.com/

    Like

    May 10, 2012
  12. I read Wide Sargasso Sea a few years ago and it made me think very differently about the character of Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre. I had read Jane Eyre multiple times before I read Wide Sargasso Sea so I approached it with already formed opinions about the characters but I look forward to reading your thoughts about it.

    It’s written in a completely different style to Jane Eyre, which I suppose partly reflects the fact that JE was published in 1847, over a century before the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea. It contains some very powerful uses of imagery, especially to do with fire, which is similar (in theme) to Charlotte Bronte’s use of fire and ice imagery in JE. I hope you enjoy it! And if you find the time, I recommend picking up a copy of JE. It’s well worth the read, IMO.

    Like

    May 10, 2012
  13. I completely agree with Alison – it completely changed my view of Jane Eyre – & WSS packs a lot of compelling issues into it’s small size. Mr. Rochester ? – can’t abide him now.

    Like

    May 10, 2012
  14. I read Wide Sargasso Sea first before Jane Eyre. It’s a little tough to compare the two because they are written by writers from different periods. Both are good, and I think Jean Rhys did a magnificent job. Charlotte Bronte would be happy.

    By the way, I don’t think the novel won the Booker in 1966 because the first Booker was awarded in 1969. Or is there another Booker award (same name, different bodies)?

    Like

    May 10, 2012
    • Good point. The way I understand it was that the 1966 Booker Award winner was awarded in 2006. I guess they started awarding novels published in years before 1969.

      Like

      May 11, 2012
      • I was puzzling about this because the Man Booker prize didn’t begin until 1969 and since then they’ve only done one retrospective award (a kind of all time Booker winner – and I knew that wasn’t Rhys). So now the mystery can be solved – at a Cheltenham literary festival there was a debate about what novels could have won the prize if it had existed in earlier years. It eventually turned into a new award called the Cheltenham Booker Prize. Rhys won it in 2006 when they were debating books published in 1966. Here’s the web site which explains if for those interested http://www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/cheltenham-booker-prize

        Karen
        http://allthingsbooker.wordpress.com/

        Like

        May 12, 2012
  15. Jacki #

    It’s been quite a few years since I’ve read Wide Sargasso Sea and I’d almost forgotten about it. Now I can’t wait to re-read it after recently re-reading Jane Eyre.

    Like

    May 10, 2012
  16. You haven’t read Jane Eyre? That is unforgivable.

    Reading literature often assumes that you are familiar with earlier works: specifically for allusions and references. Not having read Jane Eyre makes reading The Wide Sargasso Sea exceedingly problematic.

    On the other hand, do not assume that Sargasso Sea is in any way a preface to Jane Eyre: it’s not.

    Like

    May 11, 2012
  17. I see that English Heritage has just given a blue plaque to a place where Jean Rhys (1890-1979) lived – Flat 22, Paultons House, Paultons Square, Chelsea, London – from 1936-1938. More blue plaque info at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/plaquesguidance

    Like

    May 14, 2012
  18. Amazing book! I’ve read it for my Literature Class here in Brazil. We read Jane Eyre before, and while reading it, the teacher gave us an insight of the post-colonial studies and about the author’s life. It’s really nice that you’re reading it. Let me give you a suggestion, after reading the book, try to write a short-story about one of the characters too. It was my teacher’s assignment and it was a great experience. If you’re interested I posted my story in my blog, it’s called Hanging by a moment. And by the way, I’m loving your blog, can’t stop reading the posts.

    Like

    May 14, 2012
  19. I enjoyed the book, although to do so, I had to disassociate it with Jane Eyre . I’m generally not a fan of revisionist literature. For one, it’s too distracting to constantly compare it to the original, which is inevitable even if I’m trying not to do so. Secondly, I didn’t learn more about Rochester, nor did I find any reason to suddenly hate him because for me, it just wasn’t the same Rochester. Not only were there too many differences, but I am also not convinced that a different author can add to or ‘complete’ the character development. She can interpret, but not rewrite the character.

    With revisionist lit, I learn more about the author than the characters. Of course Rhys had reason to make Rochester unsympathetic. I imagine her cultural connection to the much maligned Bertha would understandably make her want to defend that character and place the blame on Rochester. In that sense, it was an interesting read. When I tried to think of these characters being the same ones as were in Jane Eyre , I got annoyed. When I instead started to think of the story as, “So that’s how a woman from another time and place felt when she read about Rochester and Bertha,” it became more interesting to me.

    Still, I enjoyed the story the most when I stopped trying to make any connection at all to the original characters, and just read it as a stand-alone story.

    Like

    May 14, 2012
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    Like

    December 5, 2014

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